On August 25, 1835, a strange article appeared in the New York Sun. The piece, attributed to famed astronomer Sir John Herschel, announced a startling discovery…the moon was inhabited by intelligent creatures. The Sun’s circulation increased dramatically and within a couple of days, was the most popular newspaper on the planet. What was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835?
Lithograph from the Great Moon Hoax (1835): “Our plain was of course immediately covered with the ruby front of this mighty amphitheater, its tall figures, leaping cascades, and rugged caverns. As its almost interminable sweep was measured off on the canvass, we frequently saw long lines of some yellow metal hanging from the crevices of the horizontal strata in will net-work, or straight pendant branches. We of course concluded that this was virgin gold, and we had no assay-master to prove to the contrary.”
Source: Wikimedia Commons
What was the Great Moon Hoax?
In 1835, the moon was a source of great mystery. So, when the New York Sun’s headline blared, “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c. At the Cape of Good Hope,” citizens turned their heads.
In total, six articles were published by the Sun, claiming to be supplements to the (non-existent) Edinburgh Journal of Science. Supposedly written by Herschel’s assistant, (the fictitious) Dr. Andrew Grant, the pieces described how Herschel had created a new telescope at his Cape of Good Hope observatory. This miracle of science was capable of 42,000x magnification, more than enough to see small objects in space. The resulting images were then reflected onto the observatory’s walls where they were sketched and described.
The Great Moon Hoax…Life on the Moon?
The articles insisted that Herschel had “discovered planets in other solar systems…firmly established a new theory of cometary phenomena…and…solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.” Despite this impressive list of accomplishments, all of it paled in comparison to the shocking news that Herschel had spotted life on the moon.
After viewing rock, a poppy field, vast forests of yew trees, inland seas, and beaches, Herschel turned his attention to an oval-shaped lunar valley. He reported seeing bison herds and blue unicorns. But the most amazing animals were yet to come. On August 27, readers learned that Herschel had observed signs of intelligent life on the moon. More specifically, he saw a primitive tribe of biped beavers who lived in huts, used fires, and carried their young in their arms. The next day, he reported something even more spectacular…a population of winged humanoids who appeared to live near a golden temple. Herschel and Grant labeled these humanoids “Vespertilio-Homo,” or man-bat.
The man-bats appeared to be engaged in conversations, complete with gestures. While the initial creatures were somewhat primitive, more elaborate man-bats would soon make an appearance. Herschel would later report the existence of a beautiful race of angel-like creatures and a mostly human population of middle class citizens.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
The story is now known, of course, as the Great Moon Hoax. Not only had Herschel failed to see any of the sights claimed by the article, he wasn’t even aware of the articles until well after they were published. From all accounts, he was initially amused by the incident but soon grew weary fielding questions about it.
The New York Sun reaped strong benefits from the Great Moon Hoax. Its circulation quickly rose from 15,000 before the series to 19,360 after its conclusion, making the Sun the most popular newspaper in the world at the time. Other newspapers followed suit and soon, the Great Moon Hoax was worldwide.
To this day, it remains unclear whether average citizens were aware of the Great Moon Hoax. At that time, newspapers were known for making up outrageous stories in order to drive sales. Also, it’s important to note that subscribers didn’t cancel their subscriptions once the truth began to emerge. Indeed, the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 became somewhat of a cultural icon for the time, leading to a play at the Bowery Theater among other things. Still, eyewitness accounts from the time make it clear that large numbers of people were fooled by the Great Moon Hoax. For example…
“Yale College was alive with staunch supporters. The literati—students and professors, doctors in divinity and law—and all the rest of the reading community, looked daily for the arrival of the New York mail with unexampled avidity and implicit faith. Have you seen the accounts of Sir John Herschel’s wonderful discoveries? Have you read the Sun? Have you heard the news of the man in the Moon? These were the questions that met you every where. It was the absorbing topic of the day. Nobody expressed or entertained a doubt as to the truth of the story.” ~ Yale Reporter, 1853
So, that leads us to our final question: who was behind the Great Moon Hoax? A reporter named Richard Adams Locke is usually given credit for the articles. However, Locke never admitted his involvement in the Great Moon Hoax and some researchers believe that the French astronomer Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, or Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine, may have perpetrated it. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know for certain. And unless new evidence comes to light, we may never know the hoaxer’s true identity.